'Belle': Romance, Race And Slavery With Jane Austen Style

May 29, 2014
Originally published on May 29, 2014 7:12 pm

British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw was brought up on Jane Austen adaptations. "You know, the Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle was something I watched on a weekly basis with my mum at home in Oxfordshire," she tells NPR's Michel Martin.

But as the biracial actress completed her training at Britain's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she watched her peers win roles in "the Downton Abbeys of this world" and realized those period dramas weren't calling her. It made Mbatha-Raw ask: "Why can't I be in something like this?"

Now she is. Mbatha-Raw plays the title character in Belle, a film based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an enslaved African woman. When she is a child, Dido's father entrusts her to his uncle, one of the most powerful men in the country.

"She goes on this massive journey to become a woman who has the courage to stand up for who she is and what she believes in," Mbatha-Raw says.

Mbatha-Raw has been praised for capturing the contradictions of being both white and black, aristocratic and scorned, at a time when Britain was questioning the morality of the slave trade. "We really do deal with the nuances of racism and equality in high society," she says. But "it's not a quote unquote slave movie. ... We're dealing with the society that benefited from the slave trade."


Interview Highlights

On bringing color to costume dramas

I guess I always felt like people weren't ready for it yet. But I never actually doubted that it wasn't something that ultimately, eventually was going to be a possibility for me. I actually genuinely never doubted it. I think I always felt like everybody had to catch up. And I don't mean that in an arrogant way at all. I just mean that coming from a Shakespearean tradition and having done all these roles, like Juliet and Ophelia on stage, and feeling incredibly well-prepared for it, I definitely just thought it was a matter of time and having the pieces to fit together.

On discovering Dido

I'd never heard of her, and I just thought, "Wow, this was crazy." I was like, "Wow, as a biracial woman in the 21st century not to know that this girl really existed." And once I saw this dual portrait of Dido on the one hand, and her cousin Elizabeth on the other, and how much affection you see between the two of them, and also Dido, having, for the period, this very, very vivacious facial expression and bright-eyed look directly out to the viewer, I thought it was so intriguing to know that she was a real girl that existed at that time. It really inspired my imagination, and the filmmaker's, too.

On upstairs, downstairs and being in between

She's bought up and, unlike many depictions of women of color that we have seen in film to date, she is a woman of privilege, a woman of status, but the ambiguity of her position is that certain rules — it's social convention if you will — dictate that she's not allowed to completely be treated equally in the household. So when guests come for dinner, she's too high to dine with the servants but too low to dine with the family, and it's this ambiguous position which, you know, when we enter the film is Dido's coming-of-age that she's really questioning — "Hang on a minute, why am I not allowed these equalities?"

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is Tell Me More from NPR News, I'm Michel Martin. After the explosive violence of "Django Unchained" and the uncompromising intensity of last year's hit "Twelve Years a Slave", you might think you have seen all you care to for the moment, of films about slavery and the slave era. But now comes a very different type of film that might just change your mind. "Belle" is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a Captain in the Royal Navy and an enslaved African woman. As a child her father entrusts her to his uncle, the Lord Chief Justice and one of the most powerful men in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BELLE")

MATTHEW GOODE: (As Captain Sir John Lindsay) I beg you uncle, love her as if I would if i were here and insure that she is in receipt in all that is due to her as a child of mine.

PENELOPE WILTON: (As Lady Mary Murray) Simply impossible.

GOODE: (As Captain Sir John Lindsay) What is right can never be impossible.

WILTON: (As Lady Mary Murray) She is black.

GOODE: (As Captain Sir John Lindsay) She is my blood.

WILTON: (As Lady Mary Murray) But she is black.

TOM WILKINSON: (As William Murray) A detail you chose not to share with us.

MARTIN: Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays the grown up Dido and she's been praised for capturing the contradictions of being both aristocratic and scorned, white and black, at a time when Britain was questioning the morality of the slave trade. And she is with us now to tell us more about the role. Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations on all.

GUGU MBATHA-RAW: Thank you, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So is this one that you wanted to do or is this one that you had to be persuaded to do?

MBATHA-RAW: Oh, my gosh there was no persuasion necessary. This was definitely a role that I've known about for quite a long time and I was so happy to be able to bring Dido's story to the screen.

MARTIN: You know the whole genesis of the story is interesting in and of itself, it's inspired by a portrait of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth that was commissioned by her uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who was a leading opponent of slavery. And for years people have looked at this portrait and debated what the relationships were and the quality between them and the obvious, you know, affection between them and kind of thought about what it meant. And so now to have it sort of come to life. What is it that attracted you to it?

MBATHA-RAW: So many things. For me, you know, I saw a postcard of the painting several years ago when I initially met the producer Damian Jones for a completely different project. And he told me about Dido, and I had never heard of her and I just thought this was crazy. And I was like wow, as a biracial woman, you know in the 21st century not to know that this girl really existed. And once I saw this dual portrait of Dido on the one hand and her cousin Elizabeth on the other and how much affection you see, you know, between the two of them and also Dido, you know, for the period having this very very for vivacious facial expression and bright eyed look directly out to the viewer, I thought it was so intriguing to know that she was a real girl that existed at that time. It really inspired my imagination and the filmmakers too.

MARTIN: Well, its set in a world that is familiar to people who are fans of Jane Austen and also people who are fans of period dramas. I wonder as a young actress, coming along did you ever think that you would have a role in a period drama set in this era? Was that even something that was part of your mind, you know, when you're thinking about your career.

MBATHA-RAW: Yeah, it's funny because I was absolutely brought up on the, you know, Jane Austen adaptations. You know the "Pride and Prejudice" with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ely was something I watched on a weekly basis with my mom at home at Oxfordshire growing up. And I think to me it's weird because like Dido I sort of thought, well why can't I be in something like this, not really understanding how the world works and how historically these period adaptations do not showcase a mixed race heroine in the lead and as I said it wasn't until I sort of went through my broader training and saw so many of my peers going off to do the Downton Abbeys of this world and the Dickens and the Austen adaptations and just realizing that I was never getting the call from my agent to audition for those.

MARTIN: Well, no, seriously, but talk about it. We're speaking about it in a very light hearted way, but let's talk about that. You are trained as well as anyone of your generation, in the same way as your peers and I want to know what that's like. To sort of reach a point where, that's a whole path for British actors and actresses and even Americans get on it from time to time right and to sort of have a talk with yourself. It seems like the kind of talk that Martin Luther King talked about, where having to have the talk with your children of the things they could not do. I mean I wonder what that was like. I mean did you even think about it?

MBATHA-RAW: I mean I never really conceived that it was something I could not do. I guess, I always felt people weren't ready for it yet, (laughing) but I never actually doubted that it wasn't something that ultimately, eventually was going to be a possibility for me. I actually genuinely never doubted it. I think I always felt like everyone had to catch up and I don't mean that in an arrogant way at all. I just mean that coming from a Shakespearean tradition and you know, having done all these roles like I Juliet and Ophelia on stage and feeling incredibly well prepared for it. I deftly just thought it was a matter of time and having the pieces to fit together.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Gugu Mbatha-Raw star of the film "Belle." Well, speaking - that whole question of what one can and can not do is very essential right, to the story in a way that is, subtle isn't right at all, but it does provide such a contrast to the other things that we have been seeing, I think that people are grateful to see about that era. But just the day to dayness of it is something that this brings vividly forward. And I just want to play a short clip, I mean, this is a clip of you speaking to your potential love interest played by Sam Reid. His name is John Davinier in the film and he's the son of a clergyman. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BELLE")

SAM REID: (As John Davinier) Permit me to ask. Why do you not dine with your family ever?

MBATHA-RAW: (As Dido Elizabeth Belle) That is not correct.

REID: (As John Davinier) Forgive me, but twice now I have seen you separated from the gathering. I am confounded.

MBATHA-RAW: (As Dido Elizabeth Belle) And, well, you might be when the son of clergy is permitted to the table before the lady of the house.

REID: (As John Davinier) Is that a reminder of my place Miss Lindsay?

MBATHA-RAW: (As Dido Elizabeth Belle) No. It is a statement of mine.

MARTIN: Amplify this a bit if you would. What - describe the situation.

MBATHA-RAW: In that scene Dido, you know, she's brought up and unlike many depictions of women of color that we have seen to date she is a woman of privilege a woman of status. But the ambiguity of her position is that there are certain rules, social conventions if you will, dictates that she is not allowed to completely be treated equally in the household. So when guests come for dinner she is too high to dine with the servants but too low to dine the family and its this ambiguous position, which when we enter the film is her coming of age that she's really questioning. Hang on a minute. Why am I not allowed these equalities? And we do really deal with the nuances of racism and equality in high society.

It's not a, quote-unquote, "slave movie." There are no slaves in the movie even though Dido's mother is a slave. We're dealing with a society that benefited from the slave trade and in a strange way that Genteel aristocratic world, you know, that brushes under the rug the ugliness of what they're really capitalizing on and Dido is somewhat caught in the middle and having to find her true self within it and really be centered in a strong sense of self as she's kind of pulled in different directions.

MARTIN: The other thing the film does, it forces people to think about things that are underneath the veneer of gentility and you know the beauty and the costumes and stuff and what really supports all that. But the other comment that it makes is about what it does mean to have power and who has it and who really doesn't have it. And any body who is a fan of stories from this era recognizes the importance of marriage to the future to young women. This is a central theme in so much literature. Dido's father left her an inheritance, so technically doesn't have to get married to survive economically. So here's a clip of Dido's cousin who's played by Sarah Gadon and she's pointing out their different fortunes even though technically Elizabeth is better off lets say. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BELLE")

SARAH GADON: (As Lady Elizabeth Murray) Aren't you quietly relieved? That you shan't be at the caprice of some silly sir and his Fortune? The rest of us haven't the choice. Not a chance of inheritance if we have brothers and forbidden from any activities that allows us to support ourselves. We are but their property.

MARTIN: Well, what about that? How does that strike you? Interesting isn't it.

MBATHA-RAW: Yeah and it really is fascinating because, you know, obviously the marriage market was very aggressive at that period and you have the issue of gender and the woman's role in society. And the fact that Dido is in this unique position, in a way that she has his inheritance, she can actually marry for love (laughing) which you know never happened, these marriages were political alliances within families at the time and you had to secure your fortune and your bread and butter. And Dido doesn't need that but at the same time she's also a exoticzied by men in her society. People don't really know how to respond to her. And she still has to deal with being a human being at the end of it all and being comfortable with herself. And I think you know one of the most inspiring messages about the film is that, it does start within. And she goes on this massive journey to become a woman who has the courage to stand up for who she is and what she believes in.

MARTIN: What do you think this film does? Many people are making the comparison to "12 Years A Slave" and this film is so different in the way feels and moves and so forth, but there is that uncomfortableness of telling the truth. obviously one of the things that "12 Years A Slave" did was bring the brutality of it home. I mean you weren't raised in this country but I can tell you that a lot of people in this country like this idea of slavery, of being a sort of a sweaty form of employment you know. Just like people were, just like a member of the family. People love that story. So one of the things that "12 years a Slave" did was tell you what it is like to be owned. What you think this film does?

MBATHA-RAW: Well, as "12 Years A Slave" so powerfully depicted the experience of being a slave in America, what "Belle" can bring to the table is the fact that it's from the British perspective. And not only the British perspective but from a woman's perspective and not just a woman's perspective but a woman of mixed heritage, who's mother was a slave whose father was in the aristocracy. So the layers of complexity are very different and I think that it's a voice that really hasn't been heard before.

I think a lot of people assume that slavery is something that just went on in America, but actually to understand this whole system, that was masterminded in the laws that actually allowed slavery to take place. So you know it's the whole balance of the world in which slavery existed and the world in which people you know benefited from it, but pretended (Laughing) that it wasn't part of their society.

MARTIN: Do you mind that I point out that your father is South African and your mom is English.

MBATHA-RAW: Yes, that's right.

MARTIN: Was there any part of this story that kind of particularly touched you? And your own history. Knowing nothing of you and how you're raised and how you even talked about, the thought about race as a child. Is there a part of the story that resonated with you, that you wouldn't mind sharing?

MBATHA-RAW: Yeah, on many levels. I mean for me I have to say I think I very fortunate growing up in a rural town in West Oxfordshire. I was certainly in the minority, but I never felt discriminated against. A felt protected and in free to be myself and you know I certainly relate to the character on many levels as I say being biracial myself, you know, I am biracial every day even though not every character that I play specifically deals with the themes of being biracial and being of mixed heritage.

But for me I really related to where Dido ends up at the end of the film which is to me what I aspire to as not just an actress but as a human being. In that you know, you have to try and follow your instincts and you know not let society dictate who you should be. Do you have to accept these labels or can you challenge them and be your true self. And that's somethign on a personal level that I strive to achieve in my work and in my life.

MARTIN: Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the star of the film "Belle" which is in theaters across the country now. she was kind enough to join us from NPR West which is in Culver City, Calif. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MBATHA-RAW: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.